What did we get instead? In 1964, on the same site that would have been the academics’ response to the Chrysler Building (or better: the Beaux Arts’ response to the Cathedral House of Learning), the university erected Joris Hall, a building whose name might be called Dickensie if that were not the case. Unfair to Uriah Dickens stack. It’s too bad—a concrete cash register adorned with tin, fitting only to the point that it was built to house Columbia Business School (CBS), which has been standing ever since. Its construction was a disaster in more ways than one, obliterating the largest square in the McKim grid while also displacing the large athletic facility that was supposed to go there. The administration would go on to claim (falsely) that they had to put the school’s new gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park, which led to the massive student protests of 1968 and all their unfortunate sequels.
But this is in the past – presumably. Columbia has just completed a new home for its business school, located on a brand new campus, the Renzo Piano-designed satellite in neighboring Manhattanville. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS + R), working alongside FXCollaborative and with landscape planner from James Corner, the facility is two buildings, David Geffen Hall and Henry R. I undertook most of the project. “It was originally just one building,” FX’s Sylvia Smith noted on a recent visit: Apparently, while reviewing the piano master plan with university officials, Kravis pointed to a pair of volumes next to the smaller wedge-shaped parcel that was originally intended for Grid. CBS. He starred into twofer and kicked $100 million to make it happen.
Connected via an underground service corridor, the structures actually function as a somewhat harmonious duo, with a ring-shaped patch of lawn in the middle serving as the main route from one to the next. “We have always been interested in blurring the lines between social spaces, learning spaces, and faculty spaces,” said Charles Renfrew, who served as DS+R project lead. As with the park plaza and circulation, the architects took the entire duplex site plan as an opportunity to create a series of connections, and opportunities to mix and mingle different parts of the program within and between them. In each building, staircases prominently zigzag down the facade behind glass-enclosed reading rooms, with offices abutting outdoor balconies abutting foosball-equipped recreation rooms. The compact and intertwined spatial logic of the interior finds expression in the wedding-cake-like envelopes of both structures, where floorboards slide in jagged layers and projections accentuate. For all their similarities, the two complement each other in a satisfying and rhyming manner—the smoother and quieter Geffen, and her necklace more powerful. “That’s Michelangelo,” Smith said, pointing to Kravis. “The other is Borromini.”
While they may or may not live up to Masters level, there is no doubt that the pair of buildings is a step up for CBS and one that will lead to an even greater transformation. The program’s leadership has made clear in recent years its intent to run the College of Business in a way that is not just business as usual, and to bring out the “builders of institutions that create value for stakeholders and society,” as stated in its mission statement. Inclusion, community, and social entrepreneurship are now regular staples in the institution’s literature and curricula—as in the new premises, where on the same visit multiple meetings and lunches were held for South Asian, African American, and female students. Visiting Executives. The school is clearly looking to banish the dreary, double-loaded entrepreneur from last year, as it opens a new era of purpose-driven profit (or perhaps the other way around). The hub is especially meaningful given the location of the new school, with CBS and in fact the entire Manhattanville development located on the westernmost edge of Harlem, right in the middle of a former industrial estate in a marginalized, low-income community. All this transparency and shared green space, all this blending of rural and plentiful functions – all meant to herald the new role of the university as an integral part of the city and the world.
Again, a step up, perhaps – but on a metaphorical ladder no less difficult and meandering than those of Kravis and Geffen. Renzo’s first Manhattanville campus building, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, announced the political and economic intent of the entire project. Clean, white, and glassy, but with a massive chimney protruding from the roof, the building was a factory: just like the factories that once packed the neighborhood, only instead of turning over the Studebakers, this factory was making knowledge. That vision of the future of the post-industrial world, envisioned more than 20 years ago when Columbia began pushing it into Manhattanville, seems more than bizarre at this point. With the completion of the new business school, one feels very sharply the paradox of the campus becoming more convincing and aesthetically appealing, even if the business premise behind it – one of endless institutional growth – seems less sustainable.
The challenges facing this model seem to be multiplying daily. What about the demands of the new trade union graduate students in Colombia? What about the stock of scarce, affordable housing that is likely to fade as expansion continues? And what of the impoverished Morningside campus, where the university has apparently decided to leave Uris almost entirely as is, and make only modest changes indoors to accommodate the humanities students (naturally) who are assigned to live there. Until they do something about their 1964 mistake, Columbia may have to worry about another 1968.
Architects: Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with FXCollaborative
Construction Director: Turner Construction
outdoor enclosure contractor: W&W glass
Interface Consultant: Arop
glass: Sedak Glass, AGC Interpane Glass Germany, Cricursa Spain, Pilkington Glass
GFRG: IDA External Systems and DKI / David Kucera Inc.
Ian Wollner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to HarperAnd New Yorker The Wall Street JournalAnd New York Magazine, among other publications. He is the author or co-author of several books and monographs, the most recent of which was contributed by Jorge Bardo: public projects and commissions, 1996-2018 (Petzel, 2021).